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BUDDHA'S PALM - Terrific kung fu fantasy with magical FX
BUDDHA'S PALM (1982) is a wild kung fu fantasy filled with elaborate special effects that deals with clan rivalries among extravagantly costumed groups with names like Dark Moon Clan, Ten Thousand Swords and Heavenly Fragrance Cult. It's filled with superheroic characters, including one named Flaming Cloud Devil, who've mastered various degrees of the Buddha's Palm technique, which gives them the power to emit energy blasts from their palms to ward off such super-powerful opponents as Foot Monster, whose foot grows huge and extends out from his body by several dozen yards in order to kick or stomp an adversary.
Based on a popular Hong Kong comic book (which had been adapted before, as a series of films, in 1964), the film owes more than a little to Chor Yuen's alternate swordplay universe, as dramatized in such films as KILLER CLANS, THE MAGIC BLADE and CLANS OF INTRIGUE, as well as to earlier "wu xia" swordplay films of the 1960s (TWIN SWORDS, COME DRINK WITH ME). More importantly, it looks forward to the "wire fu" fantasy films of the 1990s (most notably THE MAGIC CRANE and KUNG FU CULT MASTER) and seems to have particularly influenced Tsui Hark, who made his first big splash a year after BUDDHA'S PALM with ZU WARRIORS OF THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN (1983), another magical swordplay epic filled with wire-fu and enhanced effects, but with more of a mystical flavor than this film.
Directed by Taylor Wong, BUDDHA'S PALM does offer, in many ways, a more polished style of filmmaking than the Tsui Hark movies, which got by on a kind of raw, manic energy that carried the often crude effects on display. BUDDHA'S PALM was shot entirely on lavish Shaw Bros. studio sets and boasts a stunning array of attractive costumes and decorous period props. The camerawork is stunning and includes some moves that are quite ahead of their time. The special effects are generally achieved through optical lab work as opposed to the CGI which would be used today. The effects may call attention to themselves more, but they have a bold, graphic quality that befits their comic book origins. When the characters emit animated energy blasts (or energy rings) from their hands, they look exactly like comic book superheroes conjuring up astounding inner powers. The one effect that may give picky viewers pause is the man-sized flying dog-like reptile, Dameng, who is Flaming Cloud Devil's pet and helper. The creature is played by a man in a floppy suit who is onscreen in the frame in real time with the other actors. However, the character is much cuter this way and much more effective in eliciting believable reactions from the other actors than if they'd used more expensive, but more distancing, effects (e.g. stop-motion animation or animatronics). Overall, the style of effects chosen is much more appropriate to the high-pitched fantastic tone of the film than the CGI used in more recent comic book-based films such as THE STORM RIDERS (1998).
The film boasts an extremely lively cast of kung fu players, topped by Derek Yee (DEATH DUEL), who stars as Long Jianfei, a hapless villager who attacks his former girlfriend's powerful fiance (Ku Kuan Chung) and is rescued from certain death by Buddha's Palm master Flaming Cloud Devil (Alex Man), who teaches him the eight strokes of the Buddha's Palm. There are five important women characters, all of whom participate fully in the action alongside the men. Kara Hui Ying Hung plays Yujuan, one of the two sisters who become Yee's companions for much of the action. (The other is played by Candy Yu.) Kara is well-known to kung fu fans for her fighting roles in such Lau Kar Leung-directed films as MAD MONKEY KUNG FU, MY YOUNG AUNTIE, LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF KUNG FU and INVINCIBLE POLE FIGHTER. She wants to learn Buddha's Palm also, but faces a "qi" ceiling when she is told by the "Sifu" (master), "Only four strokes for girls." Also on hand are two kung fu icons, Lo Lieh (FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH), as eccentric old master "Bi Gu of East Island," as he loudly announces, to great comic effect, every time he enters the scene, and Shih Kien (ENTER THE DRAGON), as Heavenly Foot (or "Foot Monster"), who leads the Ten Thousand Swords Clan and has the foot that can extend across a palace room.
BUDDHA'S PALM moves at such a frantic pace that one can easily forget the lack of a clearly-defined plot. The narrative plays as if it started long before the movie opens and will continue long after it ends. There are at least eight major characters and the film has to keep them all in play while pouring on special effects shots in practically every scene. While there is little in the way of authentic martial arts in the film, the supernatural combat on display clearly requires some level of skill on the part of the performers.
The film is among the new Shaw Bros. releases newly remastered (by Celestial Pictures) and made available in beautifully transferred widescreen DVD editions. The original language track, in Cantonese, with removable English subtitles, is supplemented by an alternate track in Mandarin. For this reviewer, this film makes it to the top of the list of Shaw Bros. rediscoveries made possible by these new releases, shooting just past the Chor Yuen films (MAGIC BLADE, et al).
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